Once-downtrodden Falcons now among NFL’s best

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ATLANTA (AP) - During their dismal first season, the Atlanta Falcons‘ mascot _ a real bird _ apparently decided he had seen enough bad football.

So, he picked up and left. Just flew away.

For the better part of the next four decades, plenty of Atlantans probably wished they could’ve followed the lead of that prescient falcon in 1966. This was the home of a team that always found a way to quickly snuff out whatever hope it had.

The franchise’s only trip to the Super Bowl? That was ruined by the arrest of perhaps its most respected player the night before the big game. The Michael Vick era? That crashed and burned when it was discovered the one-of-a-kind quarterback had another passion _ dogfighting.

Well, look at the Falcons now.

They have put together four straight winning seasons and are well on their way to a fifth, joining Houston as the only teams that are still unbeaten five weeks into the season. Since the beginning of 2008, the Falcons have won 48 out of 69 games. Only the New England Patriots have won more during that span.

No one could have imagined the Falcons ever becoming a model franchise.

Not even the player who’s been with the team longer than anyone.

“If you had asked me five years ago, it would have been hard for me to say yes,” said center Todd McClure, now in his 14th season with the Falcons. “It had been such an up-and-down roller coaster for us.”

Atlanta, which is 5-0 for the first time in the franchise’s 46-year history heading into Sunday’s home game against Oakland, has assembled one of the league’s most dynamic offenses, led by quarterback Matt Ryan and featuring all sorts of weapons _ Hall of Famer-to-be tight end Tony Gonzalez, stretch-the-field receivers Roddy White and Julio Jones, bruising runner Michael Turner.

The defense isn’t too shabby, either. Under first-year coordinator Mike Nolan, the Falcons have taken on an aggressive, gambling personality, snatching away 14 turnovers and knocking Redskins rookie sensation Robert Griffin III out of the game last week with a concussion.

Through it all, the tone is set by white-haired coach Mike Smith, who demands even-keeled dedication during the week, a fiery passion on Sundays.

“It’s all trickle-down economics,” said safety Thomas DeCoud, who is tied for the NFL lead with four interceptions. “Whatever the big guy says, we buy into it wholeheartedly. He’s always preaching consistency. He always says consistency makes greatness. There’s a sense of pride on this team. We want to be great. I think we’ve really bought into it this season.”

Before 2008, consistency would’ve been the last word anyone attached to the Falcons. The team sported one of the most garish streaks in all of sports: never, not even once, had it put together back-to-back winning seasons.

In fact, going into the `08 season, the Falcons might have been at their lowest point ever. Vick, the face of the franchise, was in prison after admitting to his brutal hobby. The team he left behind was coming off a 4-12 debacle. When the Falcons reported for training camp, someone hired a plane to fly over the practice field dragging a sign that read: “New team name: Dog Killers?”

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